Saturday, May 13, 2017

William Mortensen (1897-1965)

William Mortensen - Self Portrait of 
William Mortensen and Courtney Crawofrd, 1926
Self Portrait of William Mortensen and Courtney Crawford, 1926

It is an honor to share with you the following works by the great William Mortensen.  Many of the following images have not been shown publicly before and were taken from the original prints exclusively for Monster Brains by Stephen Romano. Also included here are original masks designed by Mortensen that were photographed by Stephen from his personal collection.  He has provided a wealth of incredibly high resolution and beautiful copies of many of William Mortensen's greatest works that I share with you below, enjoy.

William Mortensen - Ho Ho Off To The Sabboth, 1926Ho Ho Off To The Sabboth, 1926

William Mortensen - A Tantric Priest,1930A Tantric Priest, 1930

William Mortensen - LAmour, 1930L'amour, 1930

William Mortensen - The Incubus, 1924 - 26The Incubus, 1924 - 26

William Mortensen - Belphegor, 1930Belphegor, 1930

William Mortensen - The Vampires Retribution, 1928The Vampire's Retribution, 1928

William Mortensen - Preperation For The Sabbot, 1930Preperation For The Sabbot, 1930

William Mortensen - The_Old Hag, 1928The Old Hag, 1928

William Mortensen - The Worship of Isis, The Moon Goddess, 1924The Worship of Isis, The Moon Goddess, 1924

William Mortensen - The Spanish Main, 1932The Spanish Main, 1932

William Mortensen - A Spider TortureA Spider Torture

William Mortensen - Beelzebub, 1926Beelzebub, 1926

William Mortensen - Jezebel, 1924Jezebel, 1924

William Mortensen - The Old Hag With Incubus, 1928The Old Hag With Incubus, 1928

William Mortensen - The Old Hag With Skull, 1926The Old Hag With Skull, 1926

William Mortensen -  FearFear

William Mortensen - The Initiation Of A Young Witch, 1928The Initiation Of A Young Witch, 1928

William Mortensen - Human Relations, 1932Human Relations, 1932

William Mortensen - In Missa Interfectionis, 1928In Missa Interfectionis, 1928

William Mortensen - Salome, 1926Salome, 1926

William Mortensen - Sappho, 1926Sappho, 1926

William Mortensen - Masked Nude with Skull, 1926Masked Nude with Skull, 1926

William Mortensen - The Shrapnel, 1928The Shrapnel, 1928

William Mortensen - Caprice Vanois,1926Caprice Vanois, 1926

William Mortensen - Witch On Broom, 1928Witch On Broom, 1928

William Mortensen -  Untitled c. 1924Untitled, 1924

William Mortensen - Masked Woman, 1926Masked Woman, 1926

William Mortensen - Female CrucifixionFemale Crucifixion

William Mortensen - Male FemaleMale Female

William Mortensen - Nude With Small DemonNude With Small Demon

William Mortensen - Courtney with Masks, 1926Courtney with Masks, 1926

William Mortensen - Courtney Crawford with Masks, 1924Courtney Crawford with Masks, 1924

William Mortensen - Courtney Crawford with Masks, 1926Courtney Crawford with Masks, 1926

William Mortensen - Ghoul MaskGhoul Mask

William Mortensen - Face MaskFace Mask

William Mortensen - Gorilla MaskGorilla Mask

William Mortensen - Demon MaskDemon Mask

William Mortensen - Imp MaskImp Mask

William Mortensen - Faye Wray MaskFaye Wray Mask

William Mortensen - Skull MaskSkull Mask

"Mortensen began his photographic career taking portraits of Hollywood actors and film stills. In 1931 he moved to the artist community of Laguna Beach, California, where he opened a studio and the William Mortensen School of Photography.

He preferred the pictorialism style of manipulating photographs to produce romanticist painting-like effects. The style brought him criticism from straight photographers of the modern realist movement and, in particular, he carried on a prolonged written debate with Ansel Adams.

His arguments defending romanticist photography led him to be "ostracized from most authoritative canons of photographic history." In an essay, Larry Lytle wrote, "Due to his approach—both technically and philosophically in opposition to straight or purist adherents — he is amongst the most problematic figures in photography in the twentieth-century... historians and critics have described his images as "...anecdotal, highly sentimental, mildly erotic hand-colored prints...", "...bowdlerized versions of garage calendar pin-ups and sadomasochist entertainments...", "...contrived set-ups and sappy facial expressions...", and Ansel Adams variously referred to Mortensen as the "Devil", and "the anti-Christ." In addition, the more realistic photojournalism emerging from World War II correspondents, and carried in national news magazines, caused Mortensen's more posed and contrived photos to fade from the public mind. He was largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1965." - quote source

"Mortensen’s methods often made it hard to distinguish whether the results were photographs or not. He used traditional printmaking techniques, such as bromoiling, and developed many of his own. He would create composite images, scratch, scrape and draw on his prints, then apply a texture that made them look like etchings, thereby disguising his manipulations. Consequently, every print was unique. Ultimately, Mortensen’s aim was to create something that, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be a photograph, yet portrayed scenes so fantastic they caused wonder and astonishment in the viewer." - quote source

Several masks seen in Mortensen's photographs were used in the Todd Browning directed silent film "West of Zanzibar" starring Lon Chaney from 1928. The film can be viewed in its entirety at

William Mortensen - Portrait of Fay Wray, 1921-22Portrait of Fay Wray, 1921-22

"In the 1920s, Mortensen was living in Utah when he met Fay and her older sister, Willow. When the girls moved to Los Angeles, he accompanied them as Fay’s chaperon and Willow’s fiance. However, on the train ride to California, he spoke of his romantic feelings toward Fay, saying he was more interested in her than Willow. Fay later admitted, ” I felt odd, as old as a fourteen-year-old could feel. I felt happy that he admired me; I felt guilty that he did. The train rushed on and my face felt hot. I stared at the pattern in the combing jacket. To hear that he had not cared for my sister, as my mother had said, made me feel awful, even though I liked hearing what he had to say about me. I was feeling an appreciation of myself beyond what I had ever felt; at the same time, it was terribly uncomfortable to feel so old.”

While in Hollywood, Mortensen rented the Wetzel studio on a Sunday, where he spent a couple of hours taking photos of Fay in various dresses. On a separate occasion, he took her to the beach where he shot risque photos of her barely wearing any clothing at all.

As one might expect, Mortensen and Willow’s “relationship” didn’t last. Fay’s mother, Elvina, became convinced that Mortensen had sexually abused Fay. After settling in Los Angeles, Elvina demanded to see all of the glass plates he had taken of her daughter. Mortensen complied and Elvina began shattering all of them (except this one which was somehow overlooked). Years later, Faye claimed that there was no sexual abuse at all, though she admitted that on one occasion, he “ran his hand over my dress, feeling the shape of my breasts.”" - quote and image taken from the Bizarre Los Angeles tumblr.

A documentary on Mortensen titled "Monsters and Madonnas" was shared by Stephen Romano on Vimeo below..

monstersandmadonnas from stephen romano on Vimeo.

Stephen Romano has collected and curated a fantastic collection of William Mortensen's works in recent years, you can find them at

I end this post with a quote from Stephen Romano that perfectly summarizes the artist..

"Mortensen was a master, master at lighting, master at printing, master at posing the model.  Most of all he was a visionary who understood that the camera has it's limits, and not to be enslaved by those limits but rather to invent one's own technique to perpetuate the artist's vision."

Feral House recently published a book on William Mortensen titled "AMERICAN GROTESQUE The Life and Art of William Mortensen" available directly from Feral House here.

You can also find a book on William Mortensen titled "The Command To Look, A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze" from Feral House.


Stephen Romano said...

Thank you for this amazing feature on William Mortensen! You have done a great job giving the artist long deserved due respect and putting his integrity in the forefront. Monsterbrains is one of my favorite websites on the internet and you do a service to our spiritual growth by sharing and perpetuating he great works of art you find. Thank you so much!

John said...

One of your best posts! Mortensen's work was one of genius. I had read about the Fay Wray story some years ago, but have never seen the existing photo. Keep up the great work!

Unknown said...

tieser said...

Amazing post! Thank you for introducing me to Mortensen! I'm blown away. Never stop this blog!!

Li-An said...

Some incredible images here. His imagination was fabulous.